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Discovering Paradise Lost

I don’t know how I’ve never read John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” but I’m here for it now and it’s already blowing me away. The first two of its twelve parts are densely filled with poetry that’s surprisingly easy to read, and with so many dramatic images that I’ve lost count.

The first surprise for me has been Satan. That seems to be true for many readers. I have long heard that readers of Milton’s epic found Satan’s character to be far more interesting than that of God or of Christ. I always assumed that this must be because evil is more interesting to us than goodness. Alternatively, I thought it might be because we, flawed creatures of mixed motives, might simply find it easier to understand and portray such a character, rather than one that is perfect.

But that has not been what I’ve experienced in the first two parts of “Paradise Lost.” I’m finding Satan to be an interesting and sympathetic figure not because he’s bad but precisely because Milton has given him so many of the positive traits that we admire in ourselves, in Christ, and in God.

In this story, we first encounter Satan and his demonic cohorts at their lowest point. The rebellion against God has been put down already and we hear about it only briefly. We actually see Satan’s company in pain (they’re in hell after all), and Milton paints an arresting image of them lying prostrate on hell’s floor, as lifeless as Pharaoh’s drowned minions floating on the surface of the Red Sea. Satan, the first to rise up from the ground, looks over his defeated cohorts just as the Israelites would have looked on Pharaoh’s dead, says Milton. Already Satan is being identified with Moses, and the stage is set for Satan’s own attempt to escape.

But first we see Satan’s minions engaging in a debate that has no business being as interesting as it is. Some demons counsel open war. Others, still painfully dreading heaven’s power, counsel patience, in the hope that either their fate will moderate or they will learn how to adapt to it at least to some degree. None seem to be perfectly confident even that they are immortal beings; some openly express a fear of annihilation. At length they decide that one of them should leave this place to find a new world that has recently been created, one that is intended as a home for a new creature who is said to be specially favored by God. The demons resolve that finding this place and doing what they wish with it is a better option, at least for now, than open war against a Heaven that is repeatedly described as armed to the teeth.

Satan has roused his cohorts partly because he has a strong mind that has not been conquered, not surrendered to despair; he has also learned some bitter lessons from open war and is not too prideful to counsel patience where necessary. These are objectively positive qualities, and if all this weren’t enough, he seems genuinely to feel for his company and to be willing to sacrifice for them. He volunteers for the mission to Earth, as we expect him to do, and sure, we know the motives are mixed: he takes up the mission with very publicly expressed humility, characteristic of the most savvy statesman. He will sacrifice for his men, and they love him for this, but he wants to rule over them conventionally, like a general.

Still, the parallels that Milton paints here between Satan and Christ are unmistakable; Satan is clearly on a mission of salvation. He is perhaps ultimately “in it for himself,” and we see no sign in him of the self-negating, endlessly forgiving nature of Christ. This is an important difference, to put the matter mildly. Nevertheless, Satan’s mission, if successful, would not serve him only; it would save a very large number of souls from permanent damnation in hell.

And these souls are all-too human, in Milton’s picture. When their big conference is over, some of them begin exploring hell in the hope of finding some milder corner within it. Others, more intellectually inclined, discuss what has happened to them, why they have been made to suffer, what is the nature of reality, etc.; Milton says that they have no answers and that they end up in perfect confusion and frustration. They know no more than we humans do today.

So far, in these first two books, even though you know that these are demons with, ahem, highly questionable ambitions, there is plenty of room to have sympathy for both Satan and his company. Satan in particular has admirable qualities such as strength of mind and willingness to work, risk and sacrifice. They are able to suffer and fully capable of joy, as we see when Satan gives them reason to hope. They’re not beings who can feel only hate.

Of course, we know how this will end, and already we’ve been told briefly that Satan views Earth and its creatures as mere prey; that he intends to make this world a place where Death can live, in Milton’s chilling poetic formulation.

But so far I do not see Milton portraying the existence of pure evil. This is a vision of reality in which even the worst beings retain goodness. Such a forgiving view is ultimately, in my book, a Christian view.

I do have to say one more thing about Milton’s vision. He describes Heaven as fearfully armed and impregnable. God, though not yet directly depicted in the first two chapters, appears to be no different from any imperial power, punishing his enemies and extending his realm where he can. All this is so very different from the kingdom of heaven described by Jesus, or the merciful heaven hoped for by all Christians. It is, perhaps, not an accident that Heaven should be depicted as a military imperial power by Milton, who lived at a time when Christian nations were establishing earthly empires. My question is whether Milton’s depiction is ironic and critical or naïve and apologetic.

We shall see what comes next.

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